Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” – 2010 New York Film Festival Review

Exhaustive and exhausting, Olivier Assayas’ three-part, five-and-a-half hour TV miniseries “Carlos” chronicles two decades in the life of the titular notorious international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, who in Assayas’ depiction lived the life of a revolutionary rock star.  He went from doctrinaire militant to free-wheeling mercenary, indulging in guns and women, with ideology increasingly becoming an afterthought.  Carlos became more and more concerned with fame and his fearsome reputation, all the while declaring himself a pure revolutionary concerned with the struggles of the oppressed.  These concepts, however, became ever more abstract as the years wore on and the tectonic shifts of geopolitics (especially the end of the Cold War) conspired to turn Carlos into a useless anachronism.

“Carlos” has an often stultifying, workmanlike quality, going from place to place in a straight-ahead, linear fashion that lacks shape and structure.  It’s a “this happened, then that happened, then the next thing happened” approach to storytelling that becomes quite tedious after five hours, even if there are individual episodes that are illuminating and dramatically satisfying.  The problem may be less the material itself than its presentation; this series was spread out over multiple evenings in its French television broadcasts, rather than playing all at once, as it will at the New York Film Festival.  “Carlos” will be released in New York and other cities in two versions: the full-length five-and-a-half hour French television version, which will also air on the Sundance Channel; and a condensed two-and-a-half hour theatrical cut.  I haven’t seen the latter version, but it’s not hard to see that a shortened version of this material, given more shape and structure, would be an improvement over the full-length version.

However, while “Carlos” is stuffed with detail and incident, it has far more breadth than depth.  Even though we spend a lot of time with Carlos, who changes his political alliances as often as he changes the women he sleeps with, we come away with little insight into what truly motivates him.  He is simply a militant machine that we never fully penetrate psychologically.  “Carlos” meticulously sticks to the facts, or at least the verifiable ones, which is admirable, but unfortunately this serves to weigh down the film, and too often make it a slog to sit through.  Visually, the film is a massive, two-dimensional panorama, with the sort of shaky, hand-held camera that is the standard, clichéd method to provide faux-documentary immediacy.  Edgar Ramirez as Carlos handles his multilingual role with aplomb, but his considerable skills are ill-served by the film’s failure to get below his character’s surface.  Assayas’ filmography is a mixture of masterpieces (Cold Water, Irma Vep) and misfires (Boarding Gate); I chalk “Carlos””up as one of the latter.

“Carlos” screens at the New York Film Festival on October 2.  To purchase tickets, visit the New York Film Festival website [http://www.filmlinc.com/nyff/2010/”Carlos”].  “Carlos” will premiere on the Sundance Channel as a three-part miniseries from October 11-13, and open in theaters in both its full-length and theatrical versions on October 15.